When Extreme Weather Comes to Your Town

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Extreme weather, Your Climate Stories

It was just a year ago that I was huddled in a dark basement with my dog watching an eerie, gray-green sky through the window as tree tops shivered. Thunder and lightning receded and grew closer again. The power had flicked off after ping pong ball-sized hail bounced off the deck and a red tornado warning banner for my zip code was scrolling across my phone.

Today, June 1, marks the one-year anniversary of the tornadoes that touched down in central Massachusetts, killing three people and leaving a swath of destruction from Springfield to Charlton, amid severe thunderstorms that swept east across the state. My family was lucky, our home being several miles from the path of the tornado that twisted through town.

Since the caravans of National Guard and utility trucks left, it’s been a year of fundraisers, neighbors pitching in to help neighbors at clean-up days, FEMA workshops at community centers and a long process of rebuilding for those most affected.

The sight of tree trunks ending in splintered and ripped wood some 10 to 20 feet above the ground, homes with blue tarps for roofs in various states of repair, and once-wooded yards that now resemble lunar landscapes, have been a constant reminder for local residents of the amazing power of the winds that day. Winds so powerful, they cut a 39-mile tree-less swath through central Massachusetts that is visible by satellite.

Many families are still recovering. It’s clear the aftermath of extreme weather is profound and communities remain deeply affected long after the news crews leave. One television special told the story of the emotional toll, much like PTSD, still weighing on some storm survivors, who are living in the midst of a transformed landscape.

Memories of a year ago were renewed earlier this week when a tornado watch was issued for Western Massachusetts as strong thunderstorms moved through the area. 

On my drives to exercise several times a week, I’m still stunned by the scale of the devastation along Route 20 in Brimfield (hard to capture in a camera lens) that reminds me of scenes of deforestation in Brazil. Acres of formerly wooded wetlands are now scarred, denuded land, a sea of battered stumps and piles of flattened trees against the hillsides showing the direction of the wind shear. Lumber companies have moved in, busily stacking logs and brush, and salvaging much of the timber that is lying on the ground.

Though a photo of 350.org activists carrying “Connect the Dots” signs in front of tornado-strewn trees appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, the science about any effect of climate change on tornados is unsettled.

But climate experts say the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere is loading the dice, and increasing the risk of many varieties of extreme weather, including heavy rains, floods, droughts and heat waves. And the Northeast certainly experienced our share of extreme weather in 2011, a year that included record snowfall the previous winter, spring flooding, record heat in July and Hurricane Irene in late summer. To top it off, the late October Nor’easter broke off tree limbs under the weight of leaves that were still present due to the overly warm fall, leaving many areas of the Northeast (including my house) without power for a week or more.

When extreme weather comes too frequently, communities may not have time to recover from one disaster before the next hits. Homes still being repaired from the tornadoes were vulnerable to still more damage during the subsequent storms. Thus, even forms of extreme weather that may or may not be related to climate change can pile on top of those that are, producing psychological and economic stress.

Recent nationally representative polling indicates that large majorities of Americans believe global warming made some recent severe weather events worse. The survey, conducted in March 2012 by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University, found 82 percent of Americans had personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster in the past year, and 35 percent reported having been harmed by one or more extreme weather events.

Nothing hits home as vividly as when the big storm comes to your town – or to your house.

If you have experienced extreme weather in the past year, share your story with us on Planet Change.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and writer for The Nature Conservancy.

Thumbnail Photo by: Lisa Hayden (A splintered trunk is all that remains of a large tree in the path of a June 1, 2011 tornado in Sturbridge, MA)

Photo 1: (Some homes in Brimfield remain in a lunar-like landscape after downed trees were removed.)

Photo 2: (Roof tarps still cover many homes damaged in the tornado a year later.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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